An international team of paleoanthropologists claims to have discovered a 4.4-million-year-old ancestor of modern humans, which they have named Ardipithecus ramidus. I'm extremely skeptical of their conclusions.

Researchers in the U.S. and Ethiopia on Thursday made public fossils from a 4.4-million-year-old human forebear they say reveals that the earliest human ancestors were more modern than scholars assumed and deepens the evolutionary gulf separating humankind from today's apes and chimpanzees.

The highlight of the extensive fossil trove is a female skeleton a million years older than the iconic bones of Lucy, the primitive female figure that has long symbolized humankind's beginnings.

An international research team led by paleoanthropologist Tim White at the University of California, Berkeley, unveiled remains from 36 males, females and young of an ancient prehuman species called Ardipithecus ramidus, unearthed in the Awash region of Ethiopia since 1994. The creatures take their scientific name from the word for root in the local Afar language. They are not the oldest known homind fossils but they comprise the most complete set discovered so far.

Emphasis mine. Were these bones discovered in a skeleton-shaped pile buried in the dirt? Of course not.

“Then the whole crew converged on the area and we crawled on the surface like a baby on hands and knees” searching for additional bones, he said. In the coming months, they found dozens of bones scattered over an area of 10 to 15 meters (33 to 49 feet).

Lovejoy did an analysis on 145 teeth they found, including canines from as many as 21 individuals.

A mere dozens of bones scattered over an area fifty feet across. But all related to each other, right?

Ardi was found in alongside crumbling fossils of 29 species of birds and 20 species of small mammals - including owls, parrots, shrews, bats and mice.

And those dozens of bones were in whole pieces?

Researchers have pieced together 125 fragments of bone - including much of her skull, hands, feet, arms, legs and pelvis - which were dated using the volcanic layers of soil above and below the find.

So the claim is that:

1. Dozens of Ardi bones were found. How many dozens? Let's say many dozens. Even 200 bones.

2. These 200 bones were correctly assembled from many hundreds of fragments.

3. These 200 bones belong to between 21 and 36 individual Ardis. Let's take the low figure.

4. They can differentiate the Ardi bones from all the other bones from unknown species that are mixed in with them.

5. Once they identify the Ardi bones, they can tell which ones are from which individual.

6. After all that they get an average of ten bones per individual, max.

The claims made by the researchers are just plain incredible. Look below at the pictures of the bones they assembled from fragments and the artist rendering of Ardi.

The accompanying caption is "Ardi's skeleton (left) revealed she was 4ft tall and weighed 7st 12oz". Think about that verb for a second: revealed. Not "possibly", "probably", "claims", but a concrete word: revealed. No shoulders and hardly any torso bones, but Ardi's weight is "revealed"?

I don't believe it. There are computer images of bone fragments and all sorts of claims of complex analysis, but I simply don't think there's enough information in the bone fragments to make the claims they're making.

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